Barcelona's medieval wall

This guided walk explains the history of the city's defensive constructions that were built in the 13th and 14th centuries. They had a great influence on the urban fabric of Ciutat Vella (the old city district), and a range of different archaeological remains of the structures have survived.

Just like many other cities in Europe and around the world, Barcelona was the site of a series of unique architectural structures which survived for many centuries: the city walls. Barcelona was founded in the late 1st century BC, when the Emperor Augustus founded a series of colonies in Hispania, one of which was Barcelona (at that time named Barcino). From its earliest days, the city was provided with walls. Then, in the late 4th century A.D., new walls were built, which were fully preserved in terms of both their elevation and much of their original layout. The reason for this exceptional state of conservation is that these structures were used for other constructions, and became absorbed into buildings from later periods.

From the 11th century onwards, Barcelona embarked on a period of urban expansion into the area around the ancient fortified nucleus. Small residential clusters began to spring up along the roads leading into the city. One hundred years later, these areas had grown and new ones had appeared, to form an almost unbroken urban fabric. As a result, the old Roman wall became increasingly hidden away behind new constructions. This rate of growth continued during the 13th century, and even increased, and the suburban area was soon absorbed into the city proper. But this rapid transformation and growth was not only physical; logically, it was also linked to changes in the social, economic and political spheres.

Map of the wall

The first mentions of gates in the mid-13th century

In the mid-13th century, several mentions were made of the existence of gates at different points in the urban fabric outside the old fortified compound, of Roman origin. This was only to be expected: there was a great need to somehow control the influx of people and goods, and physical and administrative limits to the city had to be set. Documents from the 13th century mention a number of different gates, such as Pont d’en Campderà, Pou d’en Moranta (which was next to the houses of Berenguer de Vilar-Joan), the one at Boqueria, Drassana and on Carrer del Born. No archaeological remains have survived of these gateways, nor do we know their exact location, but hypotheses have been established about where they were situated. Furthermore, none of the documents mentioning the existence of these gates explains what they looked like, or when they were built, or even if they defined some sort of walled parameter. However, given the fact that during these years, the city's urban growth and economic expansion was increasing at a significant rate, it is possible that none of these points of access had a strictly defensive function. Instead, they might well have been places for administrative purposes, such as for collecting taxes. According to this theory, probably none of these gates featured any important architectural structure, as that would have required a great deal of work and financial outlay. They were probably created according to functional criteria, so they could be quickly adapted to changes in the urban network. Only a threatening military situation would have forced them to abandon this system, and that did not happen until the end of the 13th century.

The fortifications after 1285

In 1285, French troops entered Catalonia and besieged the city of Girona. At that time, the Catalan king, Pere II el Gran (the Great), decreed that Barcelona should be given suitable military fortifications. In his chronicles, Bernat Desclot describes very precisely the moment when the king gave the order to build “[...] a trench around the city, [...], and an earthen wall [...], with holes for crossbowmen. And at every twenty cubits, build mounds of wood above the trench”. It was an urgently-needed construction that provided the city with something that it did not have previously, since defence had not been a priority, despite the existence of the gates. There were several buildings – some of them religious – outside this system of gates. It is likely that this is why the new perimeter was altered, so as to include these buildings within the protected area. Once the period of danger had passed, the building work continued, but no longer as an urgent intervention; thus it grew into a solid wall, with stone surfacing and towers. This parameter incorporated several already existing gates, including Jonqueres and Portaferrissa. Other portals, such as Pont d’en Campderà and the Born (and perhaps for the reasons explained above) were replaced by new constructions located further out. At that time, the construction work was supervised by the Consell de Cent, the city’s municipal government, also created in the 13th century. It is worth noting that this was the first major work of public interest carried out by the municipality. Of the specific progress of the construction work, nothing is known, nor do we know in what order the defences were built. The only data we do possess is the stone commemorating the completion of Portal Nou in 1295, now conserved in the MUHBA. Neither do we have any precise knowledge as to whether the enclosure was completed, or the layout of its perimeter. We can be sure that the entire seafront was left unfortified, while on the land side the fortifications must have described an arc which went from where Parc de la Ciutadella stands today round to the top of the Rambla. It is possible that certain section of this arc, maybe even the ends, were not completely finished.

Re-fortifications after 1357

In 1357, the city of Barcelona requested authorisation from King Pere III to rebuild and improve the city's defences. The King of Castile had made incursions into Aragon and Valencia, and a long war was about to break out. One of the first actions taken by the Consell de Cent was to purchase several quarries on Montjuïc mountain, which indicates that the project they were planning was a major one. Construction work began simultaneously at three points along the wall perimeter: at both of its ends where they reached the sea (the spurs) and a section of wall near Santa Anna, at the top of the Rambla. The work was carried out during the years that followed, until the whole circuit planned in the late 13th century had been completed, with modifications to a few sections. To that end, it can be described as the "re-fortification" of the city. In the years 1360-61, construction activities were focused on the front of the Rambla, along to Sant Daniel. Then in 1362, work began on the Boqueria sector. Some fairly complex operations had to be carried out in these areas, because in addition to building the wall, the course of the river Malla had to be altered. Furthermore, during that period, the municipal council ordered that all houses and other constructions standing less than 37 metres from the wall on the outside, and less than 3 metres on the inside, should be demolished. This order was duly executed, and was maintained as a regulation through time – in fact, the width of the Rambla today complies with the specifications established in that municipal order. In 1363, new work was carried out on the walls at Framenors and Sant Daniel. At the same time, interventions began in the Jonqueres area and on the fencing at Sant Pere, which in the following two years was extended along toward Portal Nou and Portal dels Orbs (that is, the area that now runs from Arc de Triomf, along Ronda de Sant Pere, as far as Avinguda del Portal de l’Àngel). In February 1364, engineers were facing the problem of how to excavate the ditch, and Bernat Roca, one of the city’s most renowned architects and head builder at the cathedral, designed an excavator in the form of a water wheel. It was subsequently built but was not fit for the purpose; instead, in the years that followed, it was the men and women of Barcelona who dug the ditch, using brute strength and providing their own tools. While the complex works continued on the Rambla in 1366-67, much of the work on the walls had been completed and progress was being made on the ditch. Part of the earth that was excavated was brought inside the walls, while the rest was piled on the other side of the ditch. In 1366, a new project began on building the walls at the gates of Jonqueres and Santa Anna, the sections of Sant Daniel and Framenors, at Portal Nou and, finally, at Portaferrissa, where a stone bridge was also built. Between 1367 and 1370, nine towers were built at various points along the perimeter, and bridges were built to cross the ditch in front of the gates of Jonqueres, Santa Anna and Boqueria. In 1368, work was carried out on the battlements and roofs of the towers, and in 1371, a new wall was built at the Trentaclaus. To supply stone for all these works, the Consell purchased more land on Montjuïc to excavate new quarries.

The wall on the seafront

On 9 June 1359, a squadron of Castilian and Genovese vessels weighed anchor in front of Barcelona with the intention of attacking the city by sea. No records exist that anyone had attempted this previously. In fact, it was thought to be a rather difficult enterprise, if not impossible, because of the existence of sandbanks and reefs in the bay. It was commonly believed that only sailors from Barcelona had sufficient knowledge and skill to be able to weave their way through these obstructions, dodging the banks to reach the beach. That is why the seafront had been left unfortified. However, this attempted attack in 1359 highlighted the need to protect the city's seafront, even though the work in this area would take several years to complete. In spring 1367 the work began on building a wall to protect the seafront. It was not an easy job, because it was important that the new wall should not become a hindrance for Barcelona’s maritime activities, some of which – such as the goods trade – were of fundamental importance to the city's economy. It took the Consell de Cent several more years to decide on a project that would take into account all these issues, and definitive work did not start until 1370. The idea of this project was that the entire seafront should be divided into three parts. The central part, where most of the goods traffic was concentrated, would be left completely open. The two sections on each side would have a wall with towers and various gates and small doors. All these accesses were designed to ensure the transit of people, goods and small vessels. As the construction work continued, the project was simplified. The system of small gates and doors was only installed on the side where the Ribera district was, because that was where the majority of Barcelona's seamen, fishermen and other seafaring people lived. During the 16th century, this whole stretch of wall was rebuilt. Then the decision was made to close up the seafront section completely, including the central section, where a monumental, Renaissance-style gate was built, named the Porta de Mar (Gate of the Sea).

The fortification of the Raval district

When work on the city walls was completed, in 1358, the Raval already existed, but no plans had been made to enclose it within the fortified area. Thus, the decision to fortify this district was made later on, born out of a promise given by the Consell de Cent to the neighbourhood's inhabitants. The city government had asked them to participate in the work being carried out on the Rambla, and the neighbours agreed to do so, but in exchange, they asked that their neighbourhood should be included into the fortified area. This enlargement of the wall perimeter was quite a significant task, and was not approved by the government until 1368. Before then the plans had only specified that the district should be surrounded by a ditch, with stone wall structures and/or fencing, and a few gates, which would be located according to the access points that already existed (such as the Portal d'en Godai) or by adding new points (for example, at the very bottom of Carrer d’en Robador). This project was modified between 1372 and 1375, and after a series of complex negotiations with the king, the Consell de Cent agreed to change the wall layout and enlarge the perimeter. At that time it was decided that the old shipyards (the Drassanes) would also be enclosed within the defended area. Also as a result of this agreement, it was decided that a substantial wall should be built, made out of stone and with towers. These changes to the project increased the protected area considerably, to include large expanses of fields and vegetable gardens. According to the 1368 project, construction work on the Raval ditch began at its two ends – in the section at Tallers and at Carrer de l'Hospital (going towards the Sant Pau vegetable gardens, on the other side of the Rambla). While the Tallers section was incorporated into the new project, the structures on Carrer Hospital were left unused. Following the new initiative, by 1377 the Portal de Sant Antoni had already been completed, flanked by towers that were known as Sant Iu and Sant Urbà. Work continued and documents state that by 1389 the area had been completely enclosed, even though some sections of the wall were not made of stone. Construction of the wall carried on in the Raval district into the following century, until the neighbourhood was completely enclosed behind the walls and towers.

Building and architectural characteristics of the wall

Barcelona's city wall varied in thickness between 2.2 and 3 metres (sometimes even a little wider), depending on the sector. Based on the data provided by archaeologists, it seems that for most of the wall, small or medium-sized ashlars were used. They were polished and regular in shape, and secured using lime mortar, which produced an orange-coloured patina. Some sections were not as well-made as others, where larger and better-worked stones had been used. As for the towers, their ground plans varied in design – some were square, while others were polygonal, semicircular or ultrasemicircular. The explanation for this variation lay in the considerable length of time the construction project had taken. Though it should also be noted that, according to the archaeological data available, the towers with square and polygonal ground plans were built in the city enclosure in 1285 and in most of the building campaigns commenced in 1358, while, the towers with semicircular and ultrasemicircular ground plans were added in the late 14th century. These were more monumental in appearance, and were mostly situated along the Raval sector, apart from the stretch at the old shipyards. The number of towers varied with time. As mentioned previously, nine towers were added to the city compound during the building campaigns in the second half of the 14th century. The gates were built using different designs, in accordance with the design styles used for the towers. Some gates, like the ones at Boqueria, Santa Anna, Sant Antoni, Portal Nou and Sant Daniel, were flanked by two towers with a polygonal ground plan. Others were open, with towers with a square ground plan (as in the case of the gate at Santa Madrona, which has been conserved, and the one at Sant Pau), or a circular ground plan (such as the one at Sant Sever, which opened onto one of the Canaletes towers, at the top of the Rambla). It appears that there were also a few gates that could be better described as slip gates – that is, accesses that opened directly onto the sea.

The walls come down

The advent and evolution of firearms, which were increasingly powerful and effective, changed building techniques in terms of fortification. Towers became an encumbrance, since they projected out of the wall and made an easy target for cannons. For the purposes of defence, it was much more effective to build large terraced surfaces in front of the portals, and at critical points along the perimeter. In Barcelona these changes were made in the 16th and 17th centuries, but without any corresponding alterations in the layout of the walls. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Citadel was built, a military fortress that adhered to the model introduced by the French military engineers’ school. This building had a great impact on the urban fabric, and represented a hugely significant change in the city's defence systems. In around the mid-19th century, when Barcelona was at the height of industrialisation, the walls were demolished. The decision was deemed crucial to facilitate the urban growth of the city. The entire arc of walls on the land side disappeared in summer 1854. In 1868 it was the turn of the citadel to disappear, where a large city park was built, and immediately afterwards the seafront wall was demolished. The only fragment of Barcelona's medieval walls that has survived is the stretch at the shipyards, the reason being that at that time, this historic building was a military barracks, so it was left untouched.